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Senior Correspondent

Lessons I Learned While Working Are Still Working

I spent 36 years in one industry before retiring over thirteen years ago. It was an exciting and rewarding career that allowed me to interact with some of the big names in the music and radio business. I got to live the rock and roll lifestyle for a dozen years as a DJ at Top 40 radio stations. Eventually, I moved from performer to consultant and researcher and spent the next 26 years on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And, yes, the George Clooney movie of a few years ago about frequent fliers is quite accurate. I have one of those 1,000,000 mile cards from Delta.

Over the course of three and a half decades what did I learn then that is helping me now? I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but a solid foundation was being built. Here are some lessons I learned that continue to influence me today.

Being in the right place at the right time can make a huge difference. My career was moving forward very slowly and I was having doubts about the lifestyle of a DJ. Long hours, low pay, and living with the constant risk of being fired because of low ratings lead to a stressful life.

Just then my brother happened to write a complementary article about the radio station I was programming while he was in town for my wedding. That article was seen by someone at the top radio consulting company. They had an opening and I got it. Instantly my life and career were on a path that would allow me to own my own consulting and research business a few years later, enjoy financial stability, and retire early. All because of one article, in one small newsletter, seen by one person, at exactly the right time. I would never have even been on their radar without that event.

Being at the right place at the right time is something you really can't control. But, if you are alert enough to recognize that opportunity, grab it. Some may call this luck and that may play a part. But, if you are not sensitive to the big chance when it presents itself being lucky won't help. Train yourself to look at situations with a fresh eye. When others see a problem, do you sense an opening?

Paying your dues. To break into radio at the age of 15, I started as a janitor at a tiny radio station in suburban Boston. Mopping floors, throwing out the trash, and running errands for the announcers eventually lead to a chance for me to try out for an on-air opening and get it. The truth is I got the job because I agreed to work for virtually nothing after school and weekends. I hung around the station even when I wasn't being paid, doing newscasts and playing taped programs for free.

I'm afraid there are a lot of people today who believe society owes them success. Hard work, learning the ropes, and doing the stuff others don't want to do are foreign concepts to many. They believe starting at the bottom and working your way up is not for them. I'm pretty sure that skipping the first several rungs of the ladder will set you up for a nasty fall at some point.

Long hours and sacrifice are part of building anything meaningful. My first  air shift as a DJ while away at college was from 12 midnight to 6AM Monday mornings. I had an 8 O'Clock class that I almost never attended and barely managed to squeak by with a D. Several months later I worked from 6 PM-12 midnight, 6 days a week while carrying a full class load. Later as a consultant I worked seven days a week for almost three years to establish my business.

It was not often pleasant, but building something worthwhile comes at a cost. I chose to make those sacrifices to build what I was striving to build. There was no other way.

Your word is your most valuable asset. I had more than one client tell me that I had their total trust and confidence. They believed my word was my bond and i would do everything in my power to help them succeed. In life, as well as business, trust and honesty must be earned. The cost if you squander them can bankrupt a business and a life.There is nothing more valuable than your word. Protect it at all costs.

Take an occasional calculated risk. When I was fired shortly after moving from Salt Lake City to Tucson in 1980 I had a real problem: a family with two kids under the age of 3 and no way to support them. After long discussions with my wife, we decided I would try to establish my own consulting and research business. The odds were against us. I didn't have much money for marketing and promotion.

It worked. One major station decided to take a chance on me and that lead to a national client base. It was tough at first. We didn't even allow ourselves to go shopping at a mall for one full year. But, the calculated risk we took paid off. It probably helped that we had no Plan B. It had to work.

Learning must never stop. One important lesson cost me my business and pushed me into retirement at least 4 or 5 years earlier than I had planned. I allowed myself to coast on past performances and reputation. While the industry was changing all around me, I continued to use the same approach that had worked so well for so many years. I stopped learning and evolving. When radio finally went through another gigantic upheaval in 1996 I had no way to stop the decline in my business.

The lesson was simple: never stop learning. Whatever you know today is likely to be different or obsolete much sooner than you expect. Whatever your expertise or experience, it will become worthless at some point if you don't keep learning. It doesn't matter if you are in business or retired, the world will pass you by if you step to the sidelines and watch the parade.

Know when to fold 'em. In 2001 my wife and I looked at the wreckage of the business and had to make a critical decision. Do we take a chunk of our savings and attempt to resurrect the business? Or, do we say it was a great run while it lasted. and stop? Retiring when I did was a real leap into the deep end but that's what we did. We took that risk. We knew when to call it quits.

Sometimes you have to stop something you are doing, or change direction. You may have to undergo a difficult transition to get to the next stage. You may have jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. But, the riskiest decision you can make in such a situation is to not jump. To continue along a path that isn't working for you is only going to take you farther away from where you want to be.

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